I am being shamed for wearing the wrong kind of glasses. My horrendous eyesight requires me to wear prescription lenses in order to see anything that’s more than six inches from my face. This, however, is not the problem. The problem is, according to the relentless targeted ads I receive every time I logged into Instagram this fall, that I need glasses that don’t just correct my vision but also shield me from “blue light.” The specs, the ads say, could protect my eyeballs from the eye damage and retina deterioration allegedly brought on by all the time I’ve spent in front of screens (for better and for worse).
It’s not just Instagram grifters encouraging me to buy these things. The Today show’s website has, in the past six months, published at least eight posts that push blue light spectacles as your quick fix for reducing screen time–induced eye strain. CNN argues that they should be “your new WFH staple.” And so on (and on and on). These pieces have an easy peg: the fact that the pandemic has required our professional, educational, and personal lives to take place on screens. And boy are we sick of those screens. Enter blue light glasses: the inexpensive (or sometimes very expensive) solution that will supposedly alleviate digital eye strain, prevent headaches, improve your sleep, and maybe even prevent premature vision loss … at least according to a few companies that find profit in your deteriorating eyesight.
No matter our particular pandemic situation, we’re all being asked to spend a lot more time entertaining ourselves at home, which involves a lot of Netflix and scrolling. This can lead to discomfort: During a string of late nights of work this summer, I often finished with long, aggressive eye rubbing sessions because I was feeling so much strain. It makes sense, say the experts. Compared with printed text, “often the letters on the computer or handheld device are not as precise or sharply defined,” wrote William T. Reynolds, the president of the American Optometric Association, to me in—where else—an email. “The presence of glare and reflections on the screen may make viewing difficult.” It’s worth noting that that glare comes from regular computer light—it’s not something distinct about the sinister cerulean illumination.
Could other irritating aspects of our screens be alleviated by blue light glasses, though? Eye discomfort from staring at the screen all day can often take the form of dryness. While this symptom is more closely tied to the glow coming from our computer screens, it is also not the result of a specific form of light emanating from them. The American Academy of Ophthalmology asserts that dry eyes are more likely to be the result of decreased blinking. The AAO asserts that people blink 15 times per minute in normal circumstances (“normal” being relative, here) but only five to seven times per minute while staring at a screen. Solutions for preventing dry eyes can be as simple as reminding yourself to blink, or using artificial tear drops throughout your day as a preventive measure. It’s also possible that you’re blinking even less if your superclose to your screen. When establishing a workspace at home, you should arrange your chair and desk in a way that allows you to keep a distance of about 20 to 26 inches from your face to your screen.
As a solution to these computer eye woes, experts recommend taking regular screen-free breaks. Nimesh Patel, an instructor in ophthalmology at Harvard Medical School, and Reynolds both underlined how essential it is to take time during your day to consciously look away from the screen and perform a task or activity that doesn’t require your eyes to focus on something up close. If your demanding work schedule makes these types of breaks impossible, Reynolds encourages following the 20-20-20 rule: “Take a 20-second break to view something 20 feet away every 20 minutes.” This is sort of annoying, yes! It would be nice if you could just buy special glasses that allow you to not do this, but you can’t.
That said, it’s possible that having the wrong glasses could be causing your eyes stress—but it doesn’t have anything to do with them not filtering blue light. When lockdown orders came down, many of us followed the advice of public health experts and postponed our nonessential and nonemergency medical appointments. If you’re like me, you probably still haven’t gotten around to getting your annual eye exam (horrendous myopia be damned!). Patel told me in an email it’s important to ensure your glasses or contacts prescription is up to date and customized to your particular working conditions.
Ultimately, where ads and commerce pieces see blue light as the culprit, experts see much simpler villains. The discomfort at the end of the work day is the natural result of a number of annoying little conditions. “There’s no strong evidence that blue light from our devices is the cause,” says Patel. The one thing that blue light glasses could be good for has nothing to do with our actual eye comfort: There’s some evidence that suggests they might genuinely help you sleep better. Since blue light has been found to have the strongest impact on your natural production of melatonin, filtering it out when you’re using devices at night can make it easier to fall asleep, according to a recent study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology. But even here, experts see a more mundane connection between devices and comfort: “Most of the negative impact of electronics on sleep and on your circadian clock is not due to the light. It’s due to the fact that these things are engineered to keep you awake and entertained and engaged in what you’re doing for an extended period of time,” Jamie Zeitzer, a psychiatrist at the Stanford Center for Sleep Sciences and Medicine, told the Strategist for yet another commerce piece about the glasses.
It’s curious that blue light glasses have become such a phenomenon when a basic Google search yields a lot of the same answers I got from interviewing Reynolds and Patel. Sure, user testimonials from beautiful women on Instagram or from the slickly produced Today show vlogs can have some impact on what we believe (and how we spend), but how are consumers being convinced when experts have spelled out exactly how little this product accomplishes? For one, “The FDA does not regulate eyewear, since it is not promoted as a medical device,” Patel told me, “[so] clinical trials are not required to show value before they are brought to market.”
It’s also true that the ubiquity of these ads drowns out the useful information (even that Strategist article that is somewhat critical of them includes several giant “buy” buttons!). The pushing of a largely useless product strikes me as a form of the pandemic profiteering that’s transpired in the past eight months, wherein rich people get richer on account of the rest of us being miserable. Sure, Warby Parker, Felix Gray, and randos like @baxterblue_ on Instagram are no Amazon. But I also don’t quite know what else to call someone trying to pretend they can make my pandemic more comfortable for the price of $75.